Sermon: Third Sunday of Easter, 15 April 2018, St John the Divine

Readings  Zephaniah 3.14-20, Acts 3.12-19, Luke 24.36-48

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers

For me, perhaps for you, too, Easter Sunday is the most wonderful day of the Christian year. It comes as such a relief after the sombre heaviness of Passiontide and Good Friday.  But we have now reached the third Sunday of Easter, with another four Sundays of the season still to come!  Rather oddly perhaps, once the excitement of Easter Day itself is over, we can be left with a strange sense of emptiness.  By the second week, the bubbles of the Easter alleluias can begin to fizzle away.  By the third week, we might have lost that initial Easter euphoria altogether – assuming, of course, we felt it in the first place (and I very much hope we did!).  As I have said in sermons before, relentless solemnity can be such hard work, but so can relentless joy – don’t you think?  But the fact the church calendar gives us an entire season to process Easter, to focus on what resurrection might mean in our own lives, makes the point that Easter never was a one-day wonder.  

But as we continue our journey through Easter, paradoxically, many contemporary events seem to be taking us backwards again to suffering and death, like these past few weeks in Syria, in Salisbury, in Israel and Palestine, in killings on London’s streets – sore reminders that, even in Easter, we haven’t left Passiontide behind.  Faced with these stark realities, it seems easier to revert to the notion that the upper hand belongs to the darkness of Good Friday and its resonant human themes of fear, betrayal, pain, friends who desert you just when you need them most, those who would denounce you, wound you and, yes, even kill you.    It can seem so much easier to reflect on the death of Jesus, than on his resurrection.  Perhaps it’s something to do with a deep-down consciousness that we’re more familiar with pain and death, while we may not be quite so certain whether we are as familiar with resurrection.  But the paradox of the Easter mystery is that the resurrection is not a vague conjecture into an after-life, something we have to wait for when we die. Rather, it is a living hope to be realised here and now.  Like Jesus’s disciples long ago, touched by this awesome mystery, but also confused by it, we too search for the meaning of Easter in the very ordinariness of everyday life. 

Art galleries are full of images of the passion: it seems something about the suffering of Jesus resonates with the artistic temperament.  It’s not quite so easy to find memorable images of the resurrection.  Of course, there are some – but people have never found it as easy to depict what happened that first Easter morning as they do the crucifixion.  You can find, though, the theme of resurrection is portrayed in other ways, in paintings which may not be obviously religious at all, but which relate more to ordinary life.  One that comes to mind is ‘The Awakening Conscience’ by Holman Hunt – [picture on board].  It’s not really my personal taste in art, but it makes a point.  It depicts the smart Victorian drawing room of a middle class gentleman in a place, I suppose, not unlike Richmond.  The owner of the room is seated at the centre of the picture in front of his piano.  Rising from his lap, where she’s been perched, is a woman.  She’s younger than him – and you don’t have to be all that worldly-wise to realise that something has just been taking place between them.  It doesn’t look as if she is his wife; more like someone he’s had a dalliance with.  He still has an arm across her lap – but the painting shows her in the very act of rising and breaking free.  Her face is a picture of awakening, of self-realisation.  Maybe it’s just dawned on her who she is and what’s been happening, perhaps how his man has been using her.  She rises quickly from his lap, clearly entering purposefully into a new phase of release.  The windows behind her are open; the curtains are billowing; outside all is bright and new and golden. You can see that from this moment on she’s a new creation.  It’s an evocative depiction of what resurrection might look like in ordinary, everyday terms.  Easter is the season in which our stones can be rolled back from tombs, and new light can stream into our darkened places, when we wake up to new possibilities, where life seems different because life is different.  Transformation has become a reality.

I hope you enjoyed yesterday’s sunshine!  Our spring weather is, typically, lurching from cool wind and rain to warm sunshine.  Some trees are already green, others remain in late winter mode.  Birdsong crosses this way and that at 4 and 5 o’clock in the morning, as the new season continues to find its feet.  Some tadpoles are already swimming strongly; others remain in the inky-black blob they will eventually break free of.   Spring is rising from the earth in our hemisphere, not instantaneously, but unevenly.  And I would suggest Easter does pretty much the same.  There are many places where its reality has yet to take root.  In one area of our life we may experience new life breaking through as we see on what were once the dry, bare branches of a difficult experience unexpected buds of new hope, meaning and purpose. Where we once thought ourselves alone and helpless, we discover the potential for new beginnings.  But there may be other parts of our life that seem stubbornly stuck in winter. We are not yet healed of a hurt. We meet the worst of ourselves, seeing afresh our capacity to harm ourselves and others. We see, as yet, no way out of some particular difficulty, nor can we perceive the presence of someone who will free us from this place. 

But this is the way of Easter; it may come unevenly, but it comes also with an insistence, like spring.  In a few more weeks, we will see even the dead wood bursting into life.  The warmth and light might be delayed, but in time we will look for the shade of green trees.  And if that’s the case with nature, it may well take longer for us.  This is one reason we celebrate Easter not just for a day, but for a season.  Frankly, even an entire lifetime will leave us with more Eastering still to be done!  It can take that long for us to learn to co-operate with the work of love, which is the work of the God of life. There is much to heal, more to disentangle, and yet more to wake into life.  Yet Easter is absolute: it is for all and for every part of us. The risen Jesus will not cease from this insistence that transformation always remains possible, however many the seasons that pass.

Most of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s appearances after his death, including the one we read this morning, make it very clear that his wounds are still visible.  He actually shows his followers his hands and his side.  Resurrection is not some magic spell, or an imposed happy-ever-after, which miraculously destroys life’s pain and scars.  They remain our reality.  I’ve sometimes thought that the sheer horror of Good Friday throws a lifeline to those people whose world has fallen apart, who are shattered by the coldness and despair they meet in hard places.  It relates to those who know what it is to feel utterly God-forsaken, who know how dark it can get even in the middle of the day.  People (we?) who go through their own hour of emptiness and anguish need us to acknowledge the God of Good Friday before they can ever begin to experience Easter.  For them – perhaps for us – it may be some time yet before the earth shakes, the rocks split open, and the tomb really is shown to be empty.  But what Easter says to all of us is that, even though we may have thought the opposite was the case, darkness, suffering, pain and death do not have to have the final word, but that transformation from despair to hope, from darkness to light and from death to life is always possible.  

I may not be able to find the words to explain what resurrection means, but I still think it is every bit a part of our lives as the cross.   I must admit my heart still skips a beat when I hear the ancient Easter proclamation – ‘The Lord is risen: he is risen indeed.  Alleluia!’  

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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